Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Cowles Bog

Indiana Dunes and Lake Michigan
4.5 miles loop, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, Indiana Dunes National Park entrance fee required

The Cowles Bog hike allows you to experience a little bit of everything that makes the new Indiana Dunes National Park special: a lush and biodiverse wetland, tall dunes, views of vast Lake Michigan, and reminders of the region's industrial past and present. The bog is named after Henry Cowles, a pioneering ecologist at the University of Chicago who made important observations at this wetland and in the surrounding dunes that contributed to the area's eventual preservation. Although the scenery here is not flashy, I found Cowles Bog to be a joy to hike with its profusion of wildflowers, relative seclusion, and good views. If you have time for just a single hike at Indiana Dunes National Park, Cowles Bog would be a reasonable choice.

I hiked Cowles Bog while visiting Indiana Dunes National Park with a friend living in Chicago. We drove in from Chicago, taking I-94 south and east into Indiana and leaving the interstate at exit 26A for Route 49. Upon exiting, we took Route 49 north for two miles and then made a left turn for the ramp to connect with US Route 12; we took the left fork at the bottom of the ramp to head west on US Route 12. We followed US 12 west for 1.4 miles and then turned right onto Mineral Springs Road. We followed this paved road with no lane divides north for three-quarters of a mile to the gate for Dune Acres; at this point, we turned right and followed a short gravel road into the parking lot for the Cowles Bog Trail. Parking here was somewhat limited, with room for less than 20 cars; if this parking lot is full, you will have to park 2/3 mile to the south at the Calumet Trailhead to access this hike. On a late May weekend day, there was a national park attendant monitoring the parking situation at the trailhead to prevent illegal parking. We were lucky and found a spot, but Indiana Dunes is popular enough that you may need to arrive earlier or later in the day to guarantee finding a spot. There was no entrance fee when I visited, but Indiana Dunes National Park has since implemented entrance fees; I am not certain where fee collection occurs.

From the parking lot, we walked back down the short gravel road to get back to Mineral Springs Road and then crossed the road to reach the start of the trail. The trail started by traveling along an elevated strip between lush, forested wetlands on both sides. In May, the fresh green colors of the forest and bog here were extremely refreshing; this was a landscape bursting with life. Ferns were sprouting up throughout the partially-flooded plane and cattails occurred in open spots with more sun. There was plenty of wildlife as well: we heard the call of birds in the forest and saw a turtle crossing the trail.

Ferns abound in Cowles Bog

The rich vegetation of Cowles Bog

Turtle on the trail
The landscape of Cowles Bog played a crucial role in Dr. Henry Cowles' study of ecological succession. The bog's complex mosaic of habitats, including wetlands, sand dunes, and forests, provided Cowles, then a professor at the University of Chicago, with a unique opportunity to observe and document the changes in plant and animal communities over time. Cowles' research on ecological succession revealed that the bog was not a static environment, but a dynamic system in which different species of plants and animals replaced one another in a predictable sequence.

Cowles observed that the sand dunes at the bog's edge were colonized by pioneering species of grasses, which were gradually replaced by shrubs and trees as the dunes stabilized. Similarly, he noted that the wetlands in the bog were colonized by different species of plants depending on the depth of the water, and that these communities changed over time as the water level fluctuated. 

After a third of mile of hiking from the trailhead, the wetlands to the right of the trail ended and the trail began following the base of a forested dune; the forested part of the bog still lay to the left (south) side of the trail. At 0.8 miles, we came to a junction where the Cowles Bog Trail began its figure eight loop. Here, we took the right fork, which took us uphill and away from the bog as the trail began its first ascent. This short uphill climb brought me up and over a forested dune; while the vegetation on the hill somewhat hid that all the hills here were just dunes, the loose sand underfoot betrayed that we were on one of the park's namesake dunes. Being amongst the dunes didn't mean that we were done with the wetlands, though: after crossing the first dune, the trail returned to the boundaries of an open marsh.

Cowles Bog
In late May, the forest floor on the dunes was awash with wildflower color. Columbine, geraniums, and lupine were among the many flowers in bloom, lining the sandy path up the dunes.

Blooming geraniums

Columbine and lupine
At 1.2 miles, the trail began another climb into the sandy hills, these forested dunes. The ascents here are somewhat more challenging than trails of a similar grade elsewhere due to the looseness of the sand. The trail here was incredibly idyllic, though, because of the flowers dotting the forest floor. The trail came to a junction at 1.4 miles, where the left fork cut the loop short; we took the right fork to proceed along the main Cowles Bog Trail to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Trail across forested and flower-coated dunes
The trail went up and down through this stretch of the Indiana Dunes until, at 1.7 miles, we emerged in the open atop Mount Bentley Dune, adjacent to the lake. From this open vantage point, we enjoyed the best views of the hike, which encompassed the neighboring forest, an expanse of sand beneath my feet, and the placid waters of Lake Michigan ahead.

Mount Bentley dune and Lake Michigan
Gazing across the lake, we caught a sight of the faint Chicago skyline; on a less stormy day, it might be more clear. The distinctive forms of the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Tower were both clearly distinguishable, even from this distance. The distant skyline was the only reminder that Lake Michigan was just a lake and not the vast ocean.

Chicago skyline visible across Lake Michigan
After soaking in the dune-top views, we descended down the steep sides of the dune towards the lakeshore. At the base of the dune, we came to a junction with a trail that led west through the grass towards the return leg of the loop; however, we skipped this junction and decided to follow the path all the way down to the waterfront and the beach along Lake Michigan, which we reached at just under 2 miles from the trailhead.

Looking west, we could see the two massive smokestacks of the Bailly generating station, a large coal-fired power plant that is part of the Port of Indiana industrial zone.

Bailly Generating Station at the Port of Indiana
The Port of Indiana was built into the heart of the Indiana Dunes in the 1960s, creating a massive industrial area and port in what used to be the Central Dunes of the Indiana Dunes. Bethlehem Steel and US Steel lobbied for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the lake bottom near Burns Harbor to create a deepwater port for transporting coal and steel; the result was this complex just east of Gary. The construction of the port split the Indiana Dunes in two and destroyed a large swath of the central dunes; this was one of the multiple environmental catastrophes affecting the Indiana Dunes that eventually led to the dunes' preservation and recent establishment as a national park.

Looking east along the lakeshore, we had a view of the forested dunes coming down to the water for miles until reaching the NIPSCO Michigan City power plant in the distance, a coal-fired power plant that sits atop the site of one of the other environmental catastrophes of the Indiana Dunes. The power plant is built on the former site of the Hoosier Slide, once the largest of all the Indiana Dunes, which was completely torn apart and mined for its sand to make millions of Ball Corporation Mason jars.

View along the Indiana Dunes to the Michigan City power plant
Ahead of us lay the vast expanse of Lake Michigan- the largest lake fully within the United States, the second largest of the Great Lakes by volume and the third largest by area, truly an freshwater sea. Three hundred miles of open freshwater separated our position on the southern end of the lake from the north shore on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Lake Michigan
We followed the beach to the west for a fifth of a mile and came to a path leading back up the dunes from the beach at 2.2 miles into the hike. Taking this path, we began the return leg of the loop. After crossing a flat, grass-covered stretch of the dune, the trail embarked on a steep climb up the forested dune of Mount Tuthill. This was the steepest and most extended ascent of the hike: the trail notches 120 feet of elevation gain in one go here. Although potentially tough for Midwest standards, hikers visiting from more mountainous areas are still likely to find this a short uphill climb.

Back among the wooded dunes, we enjoyed the forested landscape and the profusion of spring wildflowers blooming amidst the blooms. The spring scenery here was overwhelmingly verdant. Only the sand underfoot reminded us that these hills were sand and not soil. 

Lupine blooming on the wooded dunes
At 2.7 miles, we passed a junction that headed towards the inbound leg of the loop; we stayed to the right at the junction and continued on the larger loop. This trail briefly followed a low sand ridge before it dropped down to the bog and cut through the wetlands. At times, there were glimpses from the trail to the nearby Port of Indiana complex and its sprawling industrial campus.

Cowles Bog
At 3.3 miles, we came to another trail junction where the Greenbelt Trail split off from the Cowles Bog Trail. The right fork for the Greenbelt Trail followed the southern boundary of the bog to Mineral Springs Road; we took the left fork, which kept us on the north end of the bog. We closed the loop at 3.6 miles into the hike and then followed the path through the bog that we had come in on back to the trailhead.

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable and rewarding hike and the highlight of my day in the Indiana Dunes. The diversity of scenery on this hike- sandy dunes, blooming forest, a vast lake, verdant wetlands, industrial history, and a plethora of wildlife and wildflowers- made this a satisfying and unique experience and makes this a highly recommended hike when visiting the Indiana Dunes.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Calaveras South Grove

Massive sequoias of the Calaveras Big Trees South Grove
5 miles loop, 750 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Calaveras Big Trees State Park entrance fee required

South Grove- the more remote of the two giant sequoia groves in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park- is a lovely forest featuring many behemoth trees in a quieter and less touristy setting than the better known and more easily accessible North Grove in the same park. While the trail-accessible portions of this grove generally do not have a high density of these giant trees, there are some superlative trees along the five-mile loop hike through the grove. Most impressive of these trees include the Agassiz Tree, the largest sequoia in South Grove, along with other notables such as the Palace Hotel Tree and the Chimney Tree. As giant sequoias here occur at as low as 4500 feet- half the elevation of the sequoias found at Atwell Grove, hundreds of miles to the south- this is the lowest elevation of all giant sequoia groves. The hike to access this low elevation grove starts with a 1.2-mile access trail, includes a one-mile loop within the grove, and peaks along a 1.5 mile-round trip spur to the heart of the grove.

The road from the entrance of Calaveras Big Trees State Park to the South Grove Trailhead is closed during winter and is typically inaccessible from the first major snowfall of each winter until sometime in May, depending on snowfall each year- check the state park website to make sure the road is open before you go.

I visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park and hiked to the South Grove during an early May visit in a low-snow year, when dogwoods were blooming amidst the great redwood giants. The park is closest to Stockton and Sacramento and is a bit far for a day trip from the Bay Area, although those who are very ambitious could make it work. Driving in from the Stockton area, I followed Highway 4 east across the Central Valley, winding into the foothills above Copperopolis and passing the classic Gold Rush towns of Angels Camp and Murphys. I arrived at Calaveras Big Trees State Park about 70 miles after leaving Stockton on Highway 4 and made a right turn into the park; after passing through the park entrance, I followed a paved but winding and narrow 8-mile road across the North Fork Stanislaus River to the South Grove Trailhead near the end of the road. There were pit toilets here; services are more plentiful if you stop at the visitor center near the park entrance.

Leaving the trailhead, the South Grove Trail descended gently through forest to reach the banks of granite-lined Beaver Creek at 0.2 miles. The trail crossed this pretty creek on a well-built bridge. After the bridge, the South Grove Trail passed two junctions in quick succession with the Bradley Grove Trail, which split off to the left at both junctions; both times, I stuck to the right fork to continue towards South Grove. The trail ascended at a gentle to moderate grade after leaving Beaver Creek, passing through forests of pine mixed with dogwoods that were blooming during my May visit.

Bridge over Beaver Creek
The trail stuck to fairly plain Sierra pine forest for just over the first mile, encountering no sequoias along the way. The uphill ascent was gentle here, although during my early-season hike I had to climb around some sizable fallen trees. At one mile from the trailhead, the South Grove Trail crossed an old logging road. At 1.2 miles, the trail arrived at the edge of the grove and came to the start of the South Grove loop. I hiked the loop counterclockwise and started out by taking the left fork.

The left fork brought me across a stream, where the trail embarked on a steep climb- the most intense of the hike- that quickly elevated me 200 feet, after which the trail leveled out and headed up the valley. Here, I encountered the first sequoias of the hike, although there weren't any large sequoias that were close to the trail itself. Looking up and downslope, I spotted a few mature giant sequoias, some of which were quite impressive in girth.

Giant sequoia in South Grove
At just under 2 miles, the loop trail made a short descent and crossed the creek at the bottom of the valley and then came to a trail junction. The loop continued to the left, returning towards the trailhead, while the right fork was a spur heading deeper into the grove.

I took the right fork at this junction, following the spur trail for two-thirds of a mile to the Agassiz Tree. If you’ve come this far, you absolutely need to take the spur from the loop, as the spur has the best sequoia scenery of this hike.

Sequoia with dogwood flowers
Two hundred meters down the spur trail, I came to the Chimney Tree, a wide-girthed giant sequoia that had been completely hollowed out by fire such that the crown of the tree had toppled; however, the tree was still alive, sporting newer growth atop its original trunk.

Chimney Tree
Past the Chimney Tree, the trail began to pass by more and more giant sequoias, entering a more scenic part of the grove. In one of the most scenic moments of the hike, the trail passed right between two massive sequoias with diameters well over 15 feet that were growing side by side.

Sequoias of Calaveras South Grove
At 2.5 miles, I came upon the Palace Hotel Tree, which rose to the left of the trail and was marked by a small sign. The name of this enormous tree was apt: the inside of this 20+ foot diameter tree had been hollowed out by fire, creating a spacious chamber that would easily be as large as a small bedroom in a San Francisco apartment. Such burn scars are known as goosepens, having been used by early European American arrivals in the area to contain their poultry. This particular tree received its name soon after the opening of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, a grand and majestic structure that today still stands along Market St. near Montgomery Station.

Immense goosepen in the Palace Hotel Tree

Looking up at the Palace Hotel Tree
Leaving the Palace Hotel Tree, I continued another 200 meters onward until the trail made a rightward turn to reach the Agassiz Tree at 2.7 miles from the trailhead. The trail ended at the base of the tree, with a footpath going downhill and wrapping around the base of the tree. A few logs between the Agassiz Tree and Big Tree Creek provided places for hikers to rest and enjoy views of this arboreal behemoth. Blooming dogwoods dotted the understory around the Agassiz Tree, adding a lot of floral interest to the scenery.

Dogwoods at the Agassiz Tree
Base of the Agassiz Tree
The Agassiz Tree is the thirty-seventh largest giant sequoia in the world and the largest giant sequoia in Calaveras Big Trees State Park; it is the largest giant sequoia north of the Washington Tree in Mariposa Grove. The tree is stupendous, boasting a 25-foot diameter and standing over 260 feet tall. The base of the tree was hollowed out on one side by an enormous goosepen that rivaled the burn scar of the Palace Hotel Tree.

Goosepen of the Agassiz Tree
The tree is named after Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born naturalist who taught at Harvard. Agassiz is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work in glaciology, identifying geological features that result from glaciers and postulating that Europe had once endured continental glaciation during Ice Ages. Agassiz’s legacy is somewhat complicated now due to a number of his writings justifying scientific racism; however, while we should remember him Agassiz's failings in addition to his achievements, it is fair to note that Agassiz is remembered and commemorated today despite his failings, not because of them.

The mighty Agassiz Tree
After enjoying my lunch at the Agassiz Tree, I began my return towards the trailhead; at 3.4 miles I came to the junction with the loop again and this time took the right fork to complete the loop counterclockwise. There were not too many giant sequoias near this part of the trail but I was able to enjoy the sprinkling of white dogwood flowers throughout the lower portion of the forest canopy.

Dogwoods in South Grove
At 3.6 miles, I spotted the Kansas Group, a set of three mature giant sequoias, off to the left of the trail. In South Calaveras Grove’s general lack of sequoia density, these three great trees in such close proximity was quite striking. Continuing along the northern leg of the loop, I returned to the junction at the start of the loop at 3.9 miles; there were no sequoias of note in the final stretch of the loop. Back at the start of the loop, I followed the South Grove Trail for just over a mile, crossing Beaver Creek and then returning to the trailhead.

Kansas Group
South Calaveras Grove is not the most impressive sequoia grove due to its low density of trees- Giant Forest, Mariposa Grove, and Redwood Mountain Grove are certainly more picturesque. However, the awesome size of some of the individual trees in this grove still makes it a satisfying hike and it remains one of the best places to see giant sequoias north of Yosemite National Park.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Kungsklyftan and Vetteberget

View of Fjallbacka from Vetteberget
2 km round trip, 70 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved, narrow road to trailhead; parking limited in Fjallbacka

The best view of Fjallbacka- one of the most charming and picturesque towns along Sweden's rocky Bohuslan Coast- is from the top of the great dome of Vetteberget, which overlooks the tidy red-roofed town and its nearby archipelago and fjords. While there are multiple routes to reach the top of Vetteberget, none is more dramatic than the Kungsklyftan- a deep gorge bisecting the rock of Vetteberget that leads to the staircase climb to this rocky hill's grand summit. While not particularly difficult, this hike does involve climbing quite a few stairs and some uneven footing and the conditions atop Vetteberget can be extremely windy. This is a must-do for all visitors to Fjallbacka and was one of the loveliest spots on the west coast of Sweden.

Fjallbacka is a small and indescribably lovely town along the Bohuslan Coast, just under two hours of driving north of Gothenburg. While it was quiet during my May visit- which is still during the off season- in summer it can apparently become quite busy as one of Sweden's most beloved coastal towns. Ingrid Bergman, the elegant Hollywood leading lady of the 1940s who starred opposite Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, spent the later years of her life in this idyllic seaside town. 

Anna and I hiked through the Kungsklyftan and up Vetteberget during a May visit to Sweden. We stayed at the Bryggan Fjallbacka, which is in the heart of town and just steps away from the trailhead of the Kungsklyftan hike. For visitors just in town for the day, there are pay parking lots along Falkevagen up the hill from the center of town.

From the Bryggan Fjallbacka, we walked south along the waterfront, passing a monument to Ingrid Bergman. Right after passing the monument and a children's playground, we made a left and headed for an arched gateway at the base of the Vetteberget's cliffs: this was the start of the path through the Kungsklyftan. The path immediately began a steep, rocky staircase climb through the forested entrance to the Kungsklyftan gorge; there were nice views back down towards the Fjallbacka harbor.

At the top of the rocky staircase, the trail leveled out in the heart of the Kungsklyftan gorge. This narrow cleft in Vetteberget was extraordinarily dramatic: massive, house-sized boulders were lodged between the great vertical cliffs. The trail passed underneath the boulders, following wooden planks that made footing while traversing the rocky bottom of the gorge a little easier. 

After 200 meters of hiking up the staircase and through the Kungsklyftan gorge, we arrived at the base of a wooden staircase. This staircase- built into the side of the cliff- ascended from the gorge up to the rocky summit plateau of Vetteberget. From the base of the staircase, the exit out the far side of the Kungsklyftan gorge was visible- we were just a few meters away from the houses on the south side of the mountain. Instead of exiting, however, we headed up the staircase.  

Stairway up Vetteberget
The wooden stairs were quite steep, so we had to pause for a break a little over halfway up; we were rewarded with ever-improving views. Below us lay the colorful houses of Fjallbacka, which spilled down the hill to the harbor, rose a myriad of rocky islands that make up the Fjallbacka archipelago. Beyond the farthest of the islands lay the vast and cold North Sea.

View from Vetteberget

Colorful Fjallbacka
The staircase ended at Vetteberget's summit plateau, where the trail faded out onto the granite. In May, the winds at the summit were intense, with a steady gale whipping across Vetteberget from the North Sea. However strong the winds were, the spectacular views made the views atop the staircase worth it: below us lay the idyllic seaside town, sandwiched between the cliffs and a fjord, with infinite rocky islands stretching towards the horizon.

The top of the staircase was not the high point of Vetteberget; the true high point of this rocky hill was unclear, but as the views off the sides of the cliffs were most interesting, missing the high point did not seem like anything to be concerned about. Instead, we chose to explore the northern side of Vetteberget to see if we could find views over the central part of Fjallbacka and its stately stone church. We could see a high point on the northern side of the rock but there was no direct path to reach it from the top of staircase- multiple areas of bushy vegetation made a direct traverse of the rocky plateau impractical. Instead, we followed the western cliffs of the mountain and then circled around to the viewpoint on the north side of the rock.

Fjallbacka Archipelago

Looking out into the Fjallbacka Archipelago
Arriving on the north side of Vetteberget, we had the most picturesque view of Fjallbacka. Seventy meters below us lay the red roofs and white walls of this coastal town, which was bounded by rocky cliffs on three sides and the sea by the fourth, with the town's great church rising behind it. The scenery from this viewpoint had some satisfying balance: on one side, a rocky landscape and on the other, the sea.

Fjallbacka from Vetteberget
I did this hike twice during my stay in Fjallbacka. The most straightforward return route from the summit is to retrace your steps down the Kungsklyftan, but an alternate route is to turn left and exit the south side of the Kungsklyftan. The trail ends on the residential street of Brandgatan; we followed Brandgatan downhill through the red-roofed houses until we came to Sodra Hamngatan by the water. We turned right onto waterfront road and followed it north along the base of Vetteberget until we returned to our lodging at Bryggan Fjallbacka.

In high tourist season, perhaps this hike is busier and somewhat less pleasant. During our cold and windy May visit, we had these views more or less to ourselves even though the town was just a stone's throw away. We both found Fjallbacka and the Bohuslan Coast to be charming and the views from Vetteberget were surely among the best views that we found along the coast. Recommended if you visit this corner of Sweden.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Calero Bald Peaks

El Toro and the Diablo Range from the Bald Peaks Trail
10 miles loop, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The Bald Peaks Loop in Calero County Park south of San Jose, California is an enjoyable though ordinary hike through grassy hills with views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley. Calero County Park centers on water recreation on Calero Reservoir, which supplies water to Santa Clara County, but this enjoyable hike follows the ridge behind the reservoir for a nice day-long outing. This hike starts from the McKean Road entrance to the park and follows the Pena, Vallecito, and Canada del Oro Trails to the top of the ridge, then travels along a scenic stretch of the Bald Peaks Trail before returning to the trailhead via the Chisnantuck, Cottle, and Serpentine Trails. This hike is best in winter and spring when the grassy hillsides of the Bald Peaks are green, although the trail can get muddy after rain. Summer hiking here is typically dry, hot, and unpleasant. This loop is popular with mountain bikers as well as hikers.

I hiked the Bald Peaks Loop in Calero County Park on a nice December day, after recent rains had renewed the green grasses of the hills. Calero County Park lies south of San Jose; I reached the McKean Road entrance by following US 101 south from San Jose to exit 373 for Bailey Road. I headed west on Bailey Road, following it into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains until Bailey Road ended at a junction with McKean Road. Here, I turned left and followed McKean Road south for just under a mile to the entrance to Calero County Park on the right side of the road. Turning right into Calero County Park, I parked at the large, open parking area across from the start of the Pena Trail. Although Calero County Park does charge an entrance fee at Calero Reservoir, there was no fee to park at this trailhead.

I started the loop by crossing the road and taking the Pena Trail, a dirt road trace which was initially flat as it traveled through grassland until reaching a fork with the Figueroa Trail at 0.2 miles. I took the right fork at this junction to follow the Pena Trail up into some gently rolling hills, passing a small manmade pond shortly after the junction. The Pena Trail undulated with the hills until reaching a junction with the Los Cerritos Trail at 0.6 miles; here, the Pena Trail turned sharply and began ascending up an open, grassy ridge. This earliest stretch of the hike was quite muddy during my visit.

Pena Trail winds through grassy hills in Calero County Park
I followed the Pena Trail along its steep ascent up the grassy ridge, with lovely views of Mount Hamilton and Coyote Valley quickly opening up behind me. 

Diablo Range views from the Pena Trail
At 0.9 miles, I came to the junction with the Vallecito Trail; I went left at the junction and took the single-track Vallecito Trail, which descended down a grassy slope to the bottom of a valley and followed a stream through oak woodlands. This was a pretty if ordinary stretch of the hike, particularly nice because it was single track rather than the more common road traces in the Bay Area hills.

Oaks and grasslands on the Vallecito Trail
The Vallecito Trail ended at a junction with the Figueroa Trail, a road trace, at one and a third miles into the hike. I turned left at this junction and followed the Figueroa Trail for a brief hundred meters to reach the junction with the Canada del Oro Trail. Here, I turned right and began to follow the Canada del Oro Trail uphill through oak forest. The Canada del Oro Trail was the first part of this hike’s most extended ascent, climbing 650 feet in just over a mile. The Canada del Oro Trail had no views as the trail was completely in the woods here; the steep incline made this a good and vigorous workout. I came to a fork in the Canada del Oro Trail at 2.2 miles, with the Canada del Oro cutoff trail heading to the left and the Canada del Oro Trail turning to the right. I stayed on the Canada del Oro Trail, heading right and enjoying a short reprieve from the ascent before a final uphill through the forest brought me to the top of an open ridge and the junction with the Bald Peaks Trail at 2.5 miles.

Canada del Oro Trail through the forest
I began to follow the Bald Peaks Trail west (to the right) and the components of this ridge’s lovely views slowly started unfolding. First came views of Loma Prieta, the communications tower-topped summit that is the highest point in the Santa Cruz Mountains and was the epicenter of a 1989 earthquake that caused significant damage and fatalities in the Bay Area. The dirt road trace of the Bald Peaks Trail ran above a small basin holding a seasonal pond that made an interesting foreground to Loma Prieta’s tree-covered form in the distance.

Loma Prieta rises above a pond on the Bald Peaks Trail
The Bald Peaks Trail continued the steep ascent that had started on the Canada del Oro Trail. The trail climbed through most openly meadows with a few scattered oaks, with improving views to the east of Mount Hamilton and Coyote Valley. At 3.1 miles, the trail reached a junction with the Needlegrass Trail coming up from the Rancho Canada del Oro Open Space Preserve. Immediately after this junction, the trail arrived atop a first high point along the Bald Peaks Trail. Views over the next hundred meters of the Bald Peaks Trail, which followed the crest of the grassy ridge, were wonderful. Loma Prieta and Mount Umunhum lay to the west, rising ahead of the Bald Peaks Trail; the view north into San Jose and Santa Clara Valley was unfortunately hampered by some low-level smog but I could see Black Mountain and the rest of the Santa Cruz Mountains marching up the Peninsula. Views to the south encompassed both the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range rising on either side of the unseen town of Gilroy.

Mount Umunhum and Black Mountain rising in front of the Bald Peaks ridge
The trail descended from this first high point, reaching a saddle at 3.5 miles where a cut in the hillside revealed some unusually red rock and soil. The Almaden Valley area and the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains around Mount Umunhum and Loma Prieta are known for their cinnabar-bearing bedrock. In fact, the nearby New Almaden mine was one of the earliest European-American mining operations in California, preceding the 1849 Gold Rush; decades of mining eventually caused severe contamination of the landscape here, with the Environmental Protection Agency declaring the former mine a Superfund site. Such contamination is not unusual for Santa Clara County, which at the moment has more active Superfund sites than any other county in the United States, most related to contaminants from early semiconductor manufacturing operations by Fairchild and HP.

Leaving the saddle, I followed the Bald Peaks Trail through a short but steady ascent to the second high point of the hike. At a large clockwise turn in the trail, a social path led from the Bald Peaks Trail to the second high point. The views from this point were the most comprehensive of the hike. Looking to the southeast, I had lovely views of El Toro near Morgan Hill dwarfed by the Diablo Range, which led south from Mount Hamilton to a cluster of high peaks in the Hollister area. Loma Prieta stood high to the west and the hazy sprawl of San Jose lay to the north. It really was unfortunate that the day of my hike was so hazy: I’m sure this view would extend to Mission Peak and perhaps all the way to the San Francisco skyline and the North Bay mountains on a very clear day.

Bald Peaks of Calero County Park
Leaving the high point, the Bald Peaks Trail dropped slightly as it headed north and arrived at a junction with the Chisnantuck Trail at 3.8 miles. Here, the Bald Peaks Trail continued to the west, heading into the Rancho Canada del Oro Open Space Preserve. I took the right fork for the Chisnantuck Trail, a single track trail that left the open, grassy ridge crest for the oak woodlands on the north slopes of the ridge. At the junction, there was a bench with a nice view of the San Jose skyline, which was a bit hazy on the day of my hike.

View towards downtown San Jose
Departing from the bench, the Chisnantuck Trail largely stuck to the woods as it descended very gently over the next 2.5 miles. In fact, I found the grade of this trail excessively gentle- which was nice on my knees, but at times felt frustrating because a half mile or more of trail could easily have been shaved off here. In a few spots, the trail emerged into clearings with views towards Mount Hamilton and partial views of Calero Reservoir below. I met quite a few mountain bikers both ascending and descending this trail, so I listened carefully for fast bikers as this was a single track trail with some blind turns.

Mount Hamilton
Grassy oak woodlands on the Chisnantuck Trail
At 6.3 miles, the Chisnantuck Trail emerged into a meadow and intersected with the Cottle Trail shortly afterwards at the Cottle Rest Site, where there was water for horses. The Cottle Trail was a former road trace that followed Cherry Canyon Creek down a canyon towards Calero Reservoir. The Cottle Trail was surprisingly steep, with grades far harsher than anything I encountered on the Chisnantuck Trail as it dropped downhill to the side of the creek, which was flowing nicely during my December visit.

The Cottle Trail emerged into a large clearing and intersected with the Lisa Killough and Oak Cove Trails at 7.3 miles into the hike. I turned right onto the Oak Cove Trail at this intersection; just a hundred meters later, I came to a second junction where the Serpentine Loop Trail split off to the right from the Oak Cove Trail. Here, I once again took the right fork, leaving the much longer Oak Cove Trail for the Serpentine Loop Trail, which returns to the parking lot in a shorter distance. The Serpentine Loop Trail immediately began an uphill ascent, which was broken just two hundred meters in when the two branches of the Serpentine Loop split. I took the left fork, which stayed a little lower but offered some views over Calero Reservoir.

The Serpentine Loop Trail was very muddy, a situation made worse by the cows that had trampled over many parts of the trail. After an initial stretch of uphill through the oak woods, the trail leveled out as it headed east. I came to the Calero Bat Inn at 7.9 miles: this was one of the park’s most unusual features, a small tower designed specifically to provide a daytime shelter for these nocturnal creatures.

Continuing along the Serpentine Loop, I came to a more open stretch of the trail at 8.2 miles, where I caught a couple of rare glimpses of the Calero Reservoir, along with views of the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and of Mount Umunhum.

Calero Reservoir from the Serpentine Trail
Muddy Serpentine Trail
At 8.6 miles, I came to a four-way junction where the Figueroa Trail, the other branch of the Serpentine Loop, and the Pena Trail intersected. Here, I took the left fork for the Pena Trail to return to the trailhead. The Pena Trail began a short but steep climb from the intersection, crossing a grassy ridge and delivering views behind me of Mount Umunhum and Loma Prieta rising over the rolling hills of Calero County Park.

Mount Umunhum rises over the pastoral landscape of the Serpentine Trail
I passed a water tank and the junction with the Los Cerritos Trail at 8.9 miles; I stayed on the Pena Trail, which now began a steep and constant descent down a ridge. At just over 9 miles, the Pena Trail passed the fork for the Vallecito Trail that I had taken that morning to start the loop. I finished up the hike by following the Pena Trail downhill to the trailhead.